Key Matchup-

The focus of the Blues will be to shut down Art Ross winner Patrick Kane, who finished with a career-high 46 goals and 60 assists, and that responsibility will fall to Alex Pietrangelo. Kane prefers the control of having the puck as much as possible, and it will be Pietrangelo who will need to manipulate Kane into rushing shots he isn’t ready to take.

Chicago Blackhawks-

Winning Formula: 

The Blackhawks are stacked with talent with the likes of offensive weapon Patrick Kane, phenomenal two-way center Jonathan Toews, and premier defenseman Duncan Keith. Corey Crawford remains at the top of his game in the crease. Added defense comes from the skilled Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov on Keith’s line adding more dimension to the team’s defensive game. Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise, and Tomas Fleischmann add new depth to an already tremendous team and it will be interesting to see how Joel Quenneville chooses to use them throughout the series.

How to Lose the Series in 7 Games or Less: 

The Blackhawks are a modern day dynasty with three Stanley Cup wins since 2010, but has not won in two years. They have players from those previous wins in their ranks, but the question is if it’s been too much; too much play and pressure taking a toll on a star studded team. The Hawks have averaged 16.7 playoff games per season since 2009-10, and Kane, Toews, Keith, Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Marian Hossa have been roster pillars for each of those runs. The playoffs mean less time off of arguably the most physically and mentally demanding major sport in the world.

St Louis Blues-

Winning Formula:

This is not a David vs Goliath series. The Blues are a force to be reckoned with. Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Robby Fabbri provide youth and jump on the wings. David Backes, Colton Parayko, Troy Brouwer add size to the team. Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera are playmakers. Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Jay Bouwmeester make up a blueline that is both strong and mobile and able to manipulate adversaries; while every line plays some degree of a defensive game including the team’s offensive lines. St Louis has never finished worse than seventh in goals against since Ken Hitchcock took over coaching duties in 2011-12.

How to Lose the Series in 7 Games or Less: 

St. Louis averages the fewest goals per game of any franchise in playoff contention. The team has dealt with injuries, players getting older such as Backes, and players like Fabbri and Dmitrij Jaskin being too inexperienced to be true weapons in a battle such as this. Criticism is aimed at GM Doug Armstrong who did not address the glaring scoring issues this team has at the trade deadline. Jake Allen in the crease has come into his own when Brian Elliot wasn’t in the position over the last season, but looking at his .904 save percentage in the 2015 playoffs, losing four of six starts it’s understood that he cannot perform that way in this series if the Blues want a shot at round two, lucky for the St Louis they have Elliot on hand if Allen doesn’t live up to his last season’s performance.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 6

 

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(28-23-13; 9th in Eastern Conference)

With arguably the most exciting single day of the season occurring on Monday, Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon chose to make a few splashes ahead of the NHL trade deadline.

On February 24th he started by trading away disgruntled forward Sean Bergenheim to the Minnesota Wild for a 3rd round pick in 2016, after a slew of healthy scratches made the move inevitable. A few days’ later, impending free agent Tomas Fleischmann was flipped to the Anaheim Ducks for a 2015 3rd round pick and worthless AHL forward Dany Heatley. These moves now leave Brian Campbell, Scottie Upshall and Tomas Kopecky as the only remaining members of the 2011 roster overhaul.

After creating some holes in the lineup, Tallon dropped a bomb that fans did not expect and that signaled a strong push to make the playoffs this season. The Bergenheim draft pick along with a 2nd round pick in 2015 were flipped to the New Jersey Devils for one of the greatest players to ever grace the NHL, 43 year old forward Jaromir Jagr. With dwindling playing time in New Jersey, a Jagr trade was inevitable, except that nobody expected him to go to a team teetering outside of the playoff race.

Tallon was thinking both short and long term in making this move. The improvement to the teams 26th ranked power play (at 15.7%) will pale in comparison to the mentoring and experience Jagr can provide to Florida’s young stars. Instantly he was placed on Florida’s top line with 21-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau and 19-year-old Aleksander Barkov.

“I’ve played the game for so many years you know, if you count the games in Europe, I think I’ve played the most games of any hockey player ever played,” said Jagr at his introductory press conference. “I’ve got a lot of experience and there’s a lot of young guys. And it’s even making me excited a little more you know, it’s kind of like new life.”

The acquisition, along with the return of pure shooter Brandon Pirri from injury, has already paid dividends. The team has gone 4 for 14 (around 29%) on the PP over the past 3 games, along with scoring 11 goals over the same period.

Jaromir Jagr makes his Panthers debut against the Buffalo Sabres in a 5-3 win:

The biggest offensive producers continue to be Nick Bjugstad (38 points in 64 games), Jonathan Huberdeau (37 points in 61 games), and Jussi Jokinen (34 points in 63 games). Bjugstad could very well have the first 50 point season of his career while Huberdeau has shot up the team’s point chart lately with assists (28). Jagr will be expected to produce more than he was contributing in New Jersey and Pirri is taking off after yet another injury. In fact if Pirri stayed healthy (14 points in 31 games), he would currently be the leading scorer on the team above Bjugstad.

The defensive corps has had to step up in the extended absence of Willie Mitchell (upper-body) and the 4-game suspension of Dmitry Kulikov. Mitchell hasn’t played since February 2nd, requiring a slew of call-ups from the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage. Defensemen Alex Petrovic, Steven Kampfer and Shane O’Brien have been superb in their appearances, with Kampfer and Petrovic giving Tallon a tough decision to make when Mitchell returns this week. Without the minor league support, Tallon likely would have made a defensive depth trade at the deadline.

“Team morale is very good and very high,” said Tallon. “There’s energy and enthusiasm and team makeup is important, and chemistry. You don’t want to disrupt that as well.”

Steven Kampfer scores his first goal as a Florida Panther:

Goaltending has remained solid with Luongo carrying the majority of the weight and maintaining a 23-16-11 record. Montoya was disappointing for a while, but has shown improvement in his past few appearances.

Tuesday’s game against the Maple Leafs was an absolute disaster in goal however. A needed win was turned into a circus, as both Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya were injured during the game. The unheard of situation saw forward Derek Mackenzie and goaltending coach Robb Tallas dress up as temporary backups, before Luongo eventually finished out the 3-2 loss.

The Panthers are now in the middle of a 7-game home stand that could decide the fate of their playoff chances. They face the likes of Dallas, the Islanders and Winnipeg before a difficult run against the Conferences best teams. They are 2 points back from the 8th seeded Boston Bruins and have played two more games. There is no more room for bad games and lost points.

The outlook for a young team prevailing over the more experienced and veteran heavy Boston Bruins does not look very promising. However, the Panthers will hopefully surprise enough critics and fans to make the race for the 8th seed interesting until the end. If they can keep up the recent scoring and keep coaches from suiting up as their goaltenders, they could stand an outside shot.

41-year-old Panthers goaltending coach Robb Tallas has to suit up mid-game:

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Buckets and Blades Hockey Store

 

 

(15-9-8; 6th in Atlantic Division)

Hockey fans in South Florida have apparently been good little boys and girls in 2014. With about 40% of the NHL season in the books, they find their Florida Panthers on a tear to close out the year. With 6 wins and 14 points in their last 10 games, the normally lowly Florida Panthers are just 2 points out of a wild card spot, and have played 2-3 fewer games than the other wild card contenders. This is a great position to be in to close out the calendar year, and one that fans, analysts and even management could not have expected upon starting the season.

The Panthers offense has shown up to a much greater degree than in the beginning of the season. Unfortunately, they are still lagging at the tail end of the league, ranking 28th with just 73 goals scored. What is encouraging however is that the youngest members of the team have driven the offensive production almost entirely. Nick Bjugstad has been electric, leading the Panthers in both goals (12) and points (tied with 19). Bjugstad is receiving most of his support from arguably the league’s top Calder trophy candidate, 18-year-old rookie defensemen Aaron Ekblad, who also is tied with Bjugstad for a team-leading 19 points. When on the ice, Ekblad shows comfort in launching shots at the net and creating opportunities for other guys to cash in. One of the biggest beneficiaries of this is big-man Jimmy Hayes, who was normally found on the “scratched” list to start the season. Hayes has 9 goals and 15 points and leads the team in shot percentage, scoring on an impressive 16.1% of the shots he takes.

“Confidence is in the room now, ya know. We proved that we’re a good team. We’re right in the playoff pile so we just got to continue to get points and keep winning,” said Hayes after the shootout win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on December 22.

As for the rest of the gang, inconsistency reigns. Vincent Trocheck is still proving to the team brass that he belongs in the NHL, contributing an impressive 12 points in 21 games so far, while Jussi Jokinen has additionally remained one of the top contributors with 17 points. Outside of that however, there is not enough production from vets such as Brad Boyes and Sean Bergenheim or out of the remaining youngsters Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Injuries have additionally played a role in obstructing the rhythm of contributors such as Scottie Upshall, Brandon Pirri and Dave Bolland. While not racking up points, Bolland, Pirri and Barkov have been vital in the team’s many trips to the shootout in the month of December.

On the defensive side, the Panthers have been getting the job done. The teams ranks 5th in the league in “goals against” with just 82, also putting them at 2nd best in the Eastern Conference behind the Pittsburgh Penguins. While the power play has been a disaster at a measly 13%, the penalty kill has remained consistently strong and ranks 14th in the league at 81.2%. Believe it or not, the best player on the defensive end is also the best defenseman on the offensive end. Aaron Ekblad is currently tied for a team-leading +6 rating with Tomas Fleischmann, and is the only defenseman besides Erik Gudbranson to have a positive rating. The defensive units have played a tighter game overall as of late, with veteran Brian Campbell climbing his way back up to a 0 plus/minus rating after being the worst on the team just 1 month ago. If the Panthers can keep up with this shutdown style of defense, along with maintaining Ekblad’s offensive prowess, the forwards should be able to get into more of a rhythm and improve production on their end.

Putting aside the production of Bjugstad and Ekblad, and the shootout heroics of Barkov and Bolland, none of these wins could happen without the backbone provided by Roberto Luongo. Going 13-7-6 so far this season, Luongo has a solid 2.30 goals against average, along with an exemplary .924 save percentage. When looking at all currently active starting goalies in the league, Roberto ranks 7th in save percentage. His performances in shootouts have been damn near heroic in December. With wins against Columbus, Detroit and Philly, a 20 round NHL record-breaking win against Washington and a 7 round shutout of Pittsburgh before the Christmas break, he has given Florida shooters every possible opportunity to come away with 2 points for the club. Look for head coach Gerard Gallant to continue to lean heavily on Luongo, with only rare appearances by capable back-up Al Montoya.

You will never see another shootout like this:

The Florida Panthers will conclude 2014 on a 3-game home stand, only to find themselves begin 2015 on a 6-game road trek. Every game will matter as the team attempts to keep pace with the likes of the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins for the coveted wild card spots. With solid defense and goaltending, look for some tinkering on the forward lines in order to attempt to find some more production from key players. I would expect to see a veteran moved in the course of the next month in order to provide the youngsters with more consistent playing time. Keep checking back for further updates on the Florida Panthers heading into the 2nd half of the 2014-15 NHL season!

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Florida Panthers Season Update:

(4-4-4; 7th in Atlantic Division)

Based on the 82-part tragedy that was the 2013-14 season, it’s not surprising to say that there were few positive expectations for the Florida Panthers coming into this year. On the surface, the team is largely the same crop of unproven youngsters, underperforming veterans and adequate veteran goaltenders that has made up the roster over the last few years. For the fans though, the offseason included some roster upgrades that provided a bit of hope. With the first dozen games of the season now behind us, it seems to be a good time to take an in-depth look at how the Florida Panthers have been doing thus far.

With 12 points and a record of 4-4-4, it can’t get much more mediocre down in South Beach. However, when the team started the season 0-2-1, there has certainly been an upswing over the last few weeks. The team followed that poor opening to the season with a 7-game point streak, which included a 4-game road trip. That 7-game point streak was something that the team had not seen since 2008. Unfortunately, the final 2 games on Thursday and Sunday were blowouts that the team will have to rebound from.

The biggest problem is the utter lack of offensive production. The Panthers are tied for a league-worst 20 goals scored in their first 12 games. They are averaging a 2nd-worst 1.67 goals per game and a dismal 14.3% on the power play (22nd in the league). Possibly one of the most telling statistics, however, is their 2nd-worst team ranking in winning percentage when scoring the first goal (.429).  When the Panthers get that rare early lead, they can almost never keep it or add-on to it. This has proven to be the most frustrating part of watching their games, as Luongo can only sustain the onslaught for so long.

The forwards have overall been disappointing but there are certainly some bright spots. Veterans Brad Boyes and Jussi Jokinen lead the team with 6 points each. Boyes had a beauty of an overtime goal against Colorado on October 21, while Jokinen notched his 1st goal as a Panther and the 150th of his career on November 4th against the Bruins. Scottie Upshall and Brandon Pirri lead the team with 3 goals each. What’s particularly impressive is that Pirri accomplished that in just 4 games. After being scratched for the first 4, Pirri played a string of spectacular games, scoring on a team high of 21.4% of his shots. This was put to an end by an egregious elbow to the chin by Shane Doan, who did not even incur a suspension hearing. Pirri has been out with a concussion ever since. Upshall on the other hand, has continued his resurgence over the past 2 years. He is all over the ice and aggressively pursues pucks on each shift, but he also seems addicted to committing immature and horribly timed penalties. Upshall leads the team with 18 PIM and many of these have unfortunately affected the outcomes of games.

Aside from Pirri, the injury bug has hit the Panthers forwards hard over the past 2 weeks. Dave Bolland played in the first 4 games and has been out with a lower-body injury ever since. The same non-specific ailment took down Aleksander Barkov and Sean Bergenheim against the Coyotes on October 30. In their place, young guns Vincent Trocheck, Rocco Grimaldi and Jimmy Hayes have had a chance to step in. Hayes has an impressive 3 points in 6 games, while the Trocheck and Grimaldi 4th-line has been one of the more exciting aspects of the last 4 games. They haven’t produced much on the stat sheet, but it will be tough to send them back down when the team is fully healthy again. Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau are itching for break out games and Bjugstad is finally on a 2-game goal-scoring streak. Rounding out the forwards, Derek Mackenzie’s penalty killing and 3 points has been a pleasant surprise for a 4th-line center, while Shawn Thornton still needs to step up with his physical reputation and occasional offensive flair. It could be too early, but look for Tallon to try and unload an unproductive veteran contract such as Tomas Kopecky or Tomas Fleischmann in order to keep a younger player up in the NHL.

On defense, the Panthers have surprisingly been one of the toughest and most consistent teams in the league. Up until this past Thursday, Florida led the league in fewest goals allowed while 5-on-5. Even after getting trounced by the Flyers on Thursday (4-1), and the Flames on Saturday (6-4), they still remain tied for 7th in the league in goals against with 30. This can be attributed to a rather surprising consistency from the youngsters on the blueline, along with solid goaltending from Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya.

Rookie Aaron Ekblad and new team captain Willie Mitchell have been easily the most impressive defensemen on the team so far. Ekblad is tied for a team high 6 points and registered his first NHL goal as the game-winner against the Flyers on November 1. Mitchell has been solid, a great mentor and currently is the only blueliner with a positive +/- rating besides Dylan Olsen.

“I’m going to be moving in with him (Mitchell), coming up here this month,” said Ekblad. “It’s been pretty special learning from him both on and off the ice.”

Olsen and Dmitry Kulikov are both enjoying productive seasons so far as well, with 3 and 4 assists respectively. Unfortunately, Kulikov went down on Saturday against the Flames with a lower-body injury. While we still don’t have a prognosis, it is likely that we will see Colby Robak on defense for the first time this season, as he has only appeared in emergency offensive roles twice so far. Erik Gudbranson is playing about on par with last year as a reliable shutdown defensemen, while also needing to limit the late-game penalties that he takes. Brian Campbell has surprisingly been the most disappointing on the blueline this year. While he is a complimentary mentoring piece to Aaron Ekblad, he has a team worst -6 rating, and has looked much too lax when pursuing opposing players. Campbell is likely to be another veteran name to be shopped this season, potentially for a scorer.

After acquiring Roberto Luongo at the trade deadline last year, the Panthers now have a reliable and consistent netminder for the next several seasons. With the exception of only 2 lopsided games, Luongo has kept a team that can’t score in just about every contest. He currently ranks 16th in the league with a .925 save percentage, and 18th with a 2.31 goals against average. He also has had 1 shutout against the Buffalo Sabres, which moved him into sole possession of 13th on the all-time shutouts list, ahead of Patrick Roy. Backup netminder Al Montoya, who is the leagues 1st Cuban player now playing in the leagues biggest Cuban market, is also a huge relief over last year’s backup Dan Ellis. Montoya will not see much action, but he put in a strong game against the Washington Capitals, and had no defensive help on Saturday against the Flames. If it weren’t for the solid netminding, the Panthers record would more resemble that of last season.

Overall, the Panthers are slightly above where fans should have expected them to be after 12 games. If you ignore the 7th place showing in the dominant Atlantic Division, Florida is just 2 games back from the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. The progression of the youngsters has been reassuring for fans, and with some veteran deadweight, we are likely to see more call-ups from the AHL this year. If GM Dale Tallon can somehow flip the underproductive roster spots into some scoring, the team should continue to flirt with an 8th seed playoff birth most of the season. While fans should not expect the playoffs this year, they should tune in to enjoy the growth of many of the team’s future stars. We will certainly keep you updated on how the Panthers are doing, so keep checking back!

Follow me on Twitter at @Ian_J_Roy